Saying goodbye to the big city: The fluctuating fortunes of the regions

by Joanna Wane / 13 June, 2018
Photo/Ken Downie.

Photo/Ken Downie.

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Would life really be better if you got out of the city? And aren’t the “hot spots” already priced out of reach, anyway? Joanna Wane looks at the fluctuating fortunes of the regions, in the first of an in-depth special series exploring unexpected corners of the country tipped to be on the rise – and what to weigh up before booking a one-way ticket there.

Backhanders were involved, surely. The numbers must have been rigged. When North Shore City was named the best place to live in New Zealand in North & South’s 1994 “Top Town” cover story, it caused an outcry – and that was even before the magazine went to press.

It didn’t help that staff writer Jenny Chamberlain, who’d spent eight weeks arduously crunching the data on everything from employment opportunities and population growth to sunshine hours and burglary rates, lived on the North Shore herself. So did the magazine’s editor at the time. Across the office, their urbane colleagues at Metro were appalled. The North Shore was considered seriously uncool; it was also an uneasy fit with the ethos of North & South, a tireless champion of the provinces.

“The stick we got!” recalls Chamberlain, who’d devised a complicated points system to rank the final top 10, from a longlist of 30 towns in areas around New Zealand where the population was flourishing. In the final tally, Nelson – a popular winner of the inaugural Top Town award in 1989 – had been bumped decisively into second place. “The way we did it was scrupulously fair, but back then, North Shore people weren’t regarded as quite real. They hung out at beaches and cafes and wore their bikinis in the main street, which is exactly what happens in Takapuna even now, I’m sorry to say,” she says.

“Yet, when we added up all the points on all the different measures, North Shore City came out clearly at the top. It was on a high, with good productivity, wonderful jobs and wonderful places to live. So we went with it and just had to take the flak – which we did.”

At the time, there was intense rivalry between Auckland’s seven separate councils, before they were rolled into a single Super City in 2010. Chamberlain, who still lives in Campbells Bay – and takes her granddaughter to the beach every day after school – says the Shore boasted about its Top Town status for years, stringing banners on Takapuna’s main shopping strip.

Twenty-four years on, North Shore City’s dissolution as a political entity isn’t all that’s changed. Huge residential and commercial developments have hoovered up pasture land as far north as Albany, a satellite suburb where the once semi-rural, white-bread population has tripled in the past decade and is now more than 20% Asian.

Traffic chokes the northern motorway during the daily commute; even at the weekend, locals are hemmed in by massive jams if they don’t make a break for it before 10am. Over summer, a string of beaches was closed with “high risk” water quality warnings due to stormwater overflow.

Yet while more and more people are being stuffed in, school rolls are falling in the grand old seaside suburb of Devonport, with its ageing community and soaring property values. Few young families, who’d inject some fresh blood, can afford the average sale price of $1.5 million for a three-bedroom house.

How would you rather get to work?

And there’s the rub. While vibrancy, diversity and career opportunities flower when urban populations reach a critical mass, that comes at a cost. And more and more Kiwis are deciding it’s a price they can’t or don’t want to pay. Figures on internal migration flows in the 2013 Census showed Auckland losing more people to the provinces than it gained, with the city’s population being driven up instead by immigration, including record numbers of expats coming home.

It was a “cracking year” for employment in 2017, according to ASB’s Regional Economic Scoreboard, which notes the addition of almost 100,000 jobs nationwide and predicts a strong labour market through 2018, although wages are expected “to continue to languish at modest levels”. In March, the median house price rose to a record high of $560,000, with increases in 13 out of 16 regions.

Of course, soaring real estate values aren’t always good news. Workers in Auckland still earn the country’s highest wages, but spend so much on buying a house that the average homeowner is left with less disposable income than if they lived somewhere like Gisborne. Sweet spots like the Queenstown-Lakes District have already spiralled out of reach, and Tauranga – the SuperGold capital, where over-65s now outnumber those aged 0-14 – has nudged out the City of Sails as our least affordable city.

“If property prices are accelerated by growth, that’s fine,” says economist Shamubeel Eaqub. “But if it’s an influx of Aucklanders with a tonne of money driving up prices and not necessarily investing in local businesses or creating a lot of jobs or income, it just displaces a whole bunch of people. It’s Auckland infecting the rest of the country with its problems, and it has a habit of doing that.”

Stimulating the regions with young families wanting out of the city – while releasing the pressure on Auckland’s creaking infrastructure – sounds good in theory. Eaqub sees it differently. He thinks Auckland needs the capacity to handle more people, not fewer. What worries him about a net loss to the provinces is it means Kiwis are being locked out of the opportunities a big city with a complex economy can offer.

The other problem is that the overflow isn’t being shared around equally. It was Eaqub who coined the term “zombie towns” to describe pockets of New Zealand with stagnant or declining populations that he believes are in irreversible freefall. He’s a little more positive about the future of the regions now, but Statistics NZ projects 26 out of 67 Territorial Local Authorities will experience a fall in population between 2013 and 2043, despite a predicted 27% rise nationwide. And while Eaqub welcomes the Goverment’s new $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund as a sizeable injection of cash, he warns it won’t be a quick turnaround for places that have been in decline for decades. “Just because there’s the promise of a road or investment in a few businesses doesn’t mean all the other factors of a concentrated economy or long tail of poverty and unemployment are suddenly going to disappear.”

The three key factors he’d advise weighing up before a permanent move from the city are job prospects, access to amenities (not just essentials such as health services; the recent closure of the Fortune Theatre, Dunedin’s only professional theatre company, highlights the precarious nature of the arts in smaller communities), and the value of your social networks.

“Someone of family age [moving to the regions] might not get a CEO position, but take a comparable job that’s paid less, where the cost of living is lower and the quality of life is high, and the schools are good,” says Eaqub. But he warns the impact of leaving family and friends behind is often underestimated. Retirees, for example, might regret missing out on time with their grandchildren – or face moving back to a larger centre if their health deteriorates and they need family support or specialised geriatric care.

“All the work that’s been done around perceptions of happiness is that one of the critical things apart from economic factors is the strength of your social networks,” he says. “Small places also tend to be more centrist. In Auckland, pissing off one person doesn’t make much difference, but you can’t afford to alienate too much of a small community; you have to rub along.”

Fewer opportunities also means people hang on to their jobs for much longer, adds Eaqub. “So if you don’t like your employer, you’re kind of stuck.” And downshifting to the provinces may mean resigning yourself to never working in Auckland or Wellington again. “It’s all about what you’re trading off. If you think you can make a go of it, there are lots of small regions with great opportunities, so it’s worth a try. But your choices are more limited, your risks are very concentrated, and the difficulty might be that you’re shutting the door in terms of being able to come back.”

Tauranga, where over-65s now outnumber those aged 0-14, nudged out Auckland as our least affordable city in the latest Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.

Tauranga, where over-65s now outnumber those aged 0-14, nudged out Auckland as our least affordable city in the latest Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.

The title of Top Town was awarded four times in North & South’s occasional series on the best corners of the country to call home: Nelson (1989), North Shore City (1994), Wellington (2000) and New Plymouth (2008).

Ranking places on their desirability as somewhere to live is always going to be controversial – how do you quantify an intangible like the “vibe”? But a report due out in a few weeks will do just that, from cities and towns to communities as small as Ngatea and Mapua.

As part of the “Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities” project, one of 11 National Science Challenges, researcher Arthur Grimes is using Census data from 1976 to 2013 to run 134 settlements through an economic algorithm to identify the most appealing places to live, and the most attractive locations to do business in. As it turns out, they can be quite different things.

A combination of high rents and low wages – known as “sunshine wages” – suggests quality of life compensates for a light pay packet (think Nelson, Tasman or the Queenstown-Lakes). However, a place that has both high rents and high wages indicates a productive economy that’s good for business. Grimes and his team are also analysing how those equations change over time and the different elements at play, such as climate, natural beauty, tourism and the “buzz” of a town having its moment in the sun.

Sunshine, in fact, is a particularly sought-after commodity. In an analysis of property sales nationwide, Grimes found that an extra hour of sunlight was associated with a 2.4% increase in price. Global warming means “huge” challenges ahead over insurance cover for homes on floodplains or in coastal areas threatened by sea-level rise, he says. But for now, those who can afford it are following the sun. “The world would have to basically fry to a crisp before it goes over the top for New Zealand.”

The Labour-led Coalition’s appointment of a Minister of Regional Economic Development (Shane Jones) isn’t the only significant shift since the election. Under Helen Clark, four “wellbeings” were written into the Local Government Act, promoting a focus on the economic, social, environmental and cultural needs of a community. “National took them out, because they wanted the local authorities to stick to their knitting,” says Grimes. “Now there’s a bill to put them back in. And I think the work we’re doing suggests it does make sense – that quality of life actually affects where people want to live, not just jobs and footpaths. And local authorities have a big role in that.”

The project builds on earlier work by economist/geographer Stuart Donovan, who ranked 72 settlements using Census data from 1996 to 2006. Queenstown-Lakes, Nelson, Tasman, Kaikōura and Mackenzie consistently rated highly as places to live. (Auckland, a leading business centre, came fifth for quality of life in 2006). Wellington initially ranked 41st but rose to 12th over the 10-year span. “It shows things can change, which is a really important message,” says Grimes, who singles out New Plymouth as a reinvigorated city. “It used to be a really boring place; now it’s fabulous.”

A view of New Plymouth’s Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, part of the region’s popular and ever-expanding coastal walkway. Researcher Arthur Grimes singles out New Plymouth as a good example of how a city can reinvigorate itself. “It used to be a really boring place; now it’s fabulous.”

A view of New Plymouth’s Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, part of the region’s popular and ever-expanding coastal walkway. Researcher Arthur Grimes singles out New Plymouth as a good example of how a city can reinvigorate itself. “It used to be a really boring place; now it’s fabulous.”

Several commentators told North & South struggling rural towns in the North Island tend to languish at the bottom of the heap, both in terms of economic opportunities and quality of life. In comparison, there’s strength in the rural backbone of the south, where fertile land means there are jobs for those who want to work, and a beautiful natural environment compensates for low wages.

Another arm of “Building Better Homes”, that has a particular focus on Māori, centres on three Waikato towns – Ōpōtiki, Huntly and Pōkeno – where researchers are exploring how some communities manage to reverse a downward slide while similar towns in the same region continue to founder.

In the South Island, a third long-term study called “Regenerating for Success” is looking at local initiatives in Timaru, Ashburton and Ōamaru. It’s also testing the theory that spin-offs from a boost in tourism improve resources for the whole community – a concept not universally embraced in the provinces. Timaru’s on board, though, pumping up its events portfolio; a street concert celebrating the 60s and 70s music scene drew hundreds of people from across the region. Ashburton, 80km up SH1, has transformed itself from a traditional farming town into a multicultural hub, with programmes in place to help new migrants feel welcome and want to stay.

Investigators Harvey Perkins and Michael Mackay say the level of activity and energy in the towns is “quite remarkable”, given the narrative of depression in the regions, which have been largely left to sink or swim since the mid-80s. One of Mackay’s colleagues commutes to Lincoln University from his family home in Timaru, 150km away. “It’s a radical example, but he’s that committed to the place.”

Last year, the NZ Herald ran a story on a teacher who took a job at Ashburton College because he and his wife couldn’t afford a house in Auckland. Their two-bedroom brick home has a double garage and cost $250,000. “You wouldn’t be able to buy the garage for that in Auckland,” says Perkins.

A team of some 130 researchers is involved in the “Building Better Homes” challenge, which prioritises spending time “on the ground” in local communities. Director Ruth Berry says more than half of New Zealand’s population lives in these second-tier settlements, yet they’re “almost invisible” – and sometimes thrive despite rather than because of central government policy.

“We ask Aucklanders and Wellingtonians about congestion, but we don’t ask people in towns about connectivity and amenities,” says Berry, pointing to the impact of Air New Zealand’s commercial decision to cut flights to the regions. “If you’re in Napier and need to do business in New Plymouth, you have to dedicate a day to get there.”

Smaller centres, by their nature, tend to depend on the fortunes of a single industry or employer, notes Berry. As ambitious as the Provincial Growth Fund is, its effectiveness will rely on some real innovation among the initiatives it backs. An initial $61.7 million will be invested in forestry, tourism, rail and roading in the most neglected regions (Northland, the East Coast, Manawatū-Whanganui and the West Coast), but funding a dementia unit in Thames, as one commentator proposed, is the kind of curve-ball thinking that’s needed.

Minister Shane Jones says a number of approved projects already existed on paper but had struggled to raise enough capital through council rates or business investment to get off the ground. He singles out Southland for “thinking outside the box” with its aim to turn around its population drain by introducing more services and freshening up Invercargill’s facade. “The trick will be identifying the right sorts of projects to support our dream that people will consider the regions either as a place to move to, or as a place to remain and bring up their children.”

Berry has seen a move away from the old concept of downsizing to the regions by cashing up to buy a cheaper house. Instead, people moving to places like Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Central Otago for better work-life balance aren’t necessarily spending less on housing but getting more for their money. She thinks it’s time for some hard conversations about why we live in New Zealand, the values we cherish, and the kind of country we want to be.

“It’s become like the drive out of London, where motorway signs say ‘London’ or ‘the North’. In New Zealand, it’s almost  ‘Auckland’ or ‘the South’. But we never made a conscious decision to go for one mega-city and then everything else,” she says. “Spend a bit of time in these other places and you realise how vibrant and go-ahead and aspirational they are – not the places those of us in our 40s or 50s might remember from when we were small.”

Lauren Christie of Southland Girls’ High makes a break in a secondary-school rugby final in Invercargill last year. Minister of Regional Economic Development Shane Jones singles out the region for “thinking outside the box” in its aim to reverse a population drain by introducing more services and sprucing up Invercargill’s facade.

Lauren Christie of Southland Girls’ High makes a break in a secondary-school rugby final in Invercargill last year. Minister of Regional Economic Development Shane Jones singles out the region for “thinking outside the box” in its aim to reverse a population drain by introducing more services and sprucing up Invercargill’s facade.

The Top Town series not only gives a snapshot of life in New Zealand over the past 30 years but an insight into how times have indeed changed.

In the early days, profiles of the winners included a breakdown of marital status and ethnicity (with no category for “Asian”), a comparison of School Certificate results, the number of churches, and whether there was a local newspaper. It wasn’t until the new millennium rolled over that points for “traffic” were added to the table; there was no mention of air and water quality until then, either.

“In 1994, we took air and water quality for granted,” wrote Jenny Chamberlain, in her December 2000 cover story on Absolutely Positively Wellington. “Now several cities have problems with one or both.” Today, average commuting times, high-speed broadband, rental housing and access to an airport would be on most people’s checklists.

The series was inspired by a popular TV game show of the time, Top Town, which pitched teams from different towns against each other in a series of physical challenges. “The whole thing was about Kiwi culture and the fun of getting people to compete with each other for being the loveliest place to live in,” says Chamberlain. “And there are so many lovely places to live in this country, so many unsung beautiful corners. We wanted to celebrate that.”

Often towns had such a strong sense of pride they were genuinely shocked not to make the top 10. And Chamberlain thinks it’s no coincidence all four winners have a close relationship with the coastline. “We all want the same key things: a nice place to live and raise kids. But on the whole, being close to water is what people want. And that’s New Zealand for you. Kiwis can’t seem to live without being near the water.”

Paul and Claudia Page with daughter Holly , at home in Takapuna. Photo/Ken Downie.

Paul and Claudia Page with daughter Holly , at home in Takapuna. Photo/Ken Downie.

From Takapuna to Tiffany’s

Is the North Shore getting too big for its boots?

Bare feet. Bike rides to North Head. Transforming a dinghy into a boat tent on the front lawn and sleeping out overnight. Growing up in Devonport was “magical”, recalls Holly Page, who was just three and a half when North Shore City took out the title in North & South’s second Top Town awards, in 1994. “It was such a safe place to grow up and make friends, literally for the rest of my life. I still talk to girls I went to Playcentre with up on Mt Victoria.”

Page, 27, is now assistant sales manager at the Tiffany store in Britomart. She lived in an apartment in the Viaduct for a couple of years before moving back in with her parents, who have built a new house in Takapuna. City-side friends joke about needing a passport to get there, and even Page is unimpressed with the lack of public transport and gridlock on Lake Rd. But she says the North Shore isn’t as sleepy as it used to be; for young people, Takapuna is buzzing. And the Shore population will rise by one when her sister, Madeleine, who’s 23, moves home from London later this year.

Claudia Page was a stay-home mum when the two girls were little, then retrained in landscape design. While the North Shore has become more vibrant and cosmopolitan, it’s close to becoming over-populated, she says, putting pressure on green space and leaving heritage buildings vulnerable to developers. Local boards also hold little sway since being amalgamated into Auckland Council, “and that’s a tremendous pity”. 

Husband Paul, who was originally a sailmaker, has run a series of successful businesses on Barry’s Point Rd, Takapuna’s commercial backbone. He’s since taken a step back and works part-time in a bike shop, having swapped watersports for his new passion: competitive mountain biking. “There are so many active people on the North Shore,” he says. “Finding like-minded people isn’t a problem.”

One day, they might follow the sun further north, to the Kaipara perhaps, or somewhere around Bream Bay. “I could never live away from where the tide goes in and out every day,” says Claudia. “I love Auckland, but it certainly has its problems. It’s tempting [to move] sometimes, but I don’t think we will just yet.”

Left: Jos and Bob Preston were running Nelson’s only windsurfing shop, at Tahunanui Beach, when they featured in our inaugural Top Town story in 1989. Right: On the same beach, 30 years later, taking “the mutt” Cassey for her daily walk.

Left: Jos and Bob Preston were running Nelson’s only windsurfing shop, at Tahunanui Beach, when they featured in our inaugural Top Town story in 1989. Right: On the same beach, 30 years later, taking “the mutt” Cassey for her daily walk.

Nowhere but Nelson

Three decades on, the “sunshine state” has lost none of its charm.

All it took was one quick phone call to track down Bob Preston, who’s lived all his life in Nelson – and spent most of it out on the water. “Sure, I know Bob,” said Tim, who owns a sailing and windsurfing business in town, and agreed to pass on a message. Minutes later, Preston was on the line.

It’s nearly 30 years since Nelson was named Top Town in North & South’s first awards. When Preston and wife Jos featured in our 1989 cover story, they had a nine-year-old daughter, an alsatian/labrador cross and Nelson’s only windsurfing shop. In the years that followed, they opened two clothing stores in the city centre but sold up in 2002, predicting hard times ahead for independent retailers facing competition from chain stores. Looking back, Preston thinks they made the right call.

A multiple winner of the New Zealand Paper Tiger Catamaran National Championships, the 68-year-old still gets out on his windsurfer “whenever it blows”. Jos, who’s in her early 60s, works as the office manager for a trucking company. The couple are grandparents now; daughter Lucinda lives in Christchurch with her four children. And they’ve downsized dogs to a bichon, Cassey. Their Wakatu home is a six-minute drive from Tāhunanui Beach, where Preston walks “the mutt” most days. He semi-retired after selling the business but has now gone full circle back to his original school-leaver trade as an electrician, wiring up new subdivisions in the mushrooming town of Richmond, 14km south.

Last year, Nelson topped ASB’s Regional Economic Scorecard for two quarters in a row, thanks to its thriving tourism, horticulture and viticulture sectors. Building is booming and the region has one of New Zealand’s lowest unemployment rates.

There’s a hell of a lot more traffic these days, says Preston, and people have been arguing for years over building a port bypass. A few families relocated from Canterbury after the earthquakes, but he reckons the kind of folk who live here hasn’t really changed. What’s made him stay? “Just because it’s Nelson,” he says, and you can hear the shrug in his voice. “I’ve never really thought about leaving.”

Keryn and Rhys Williams with their children Meg and Jack. The couple still champion life in Taranaki, despite facing some challenges.

There and back again

Weathering uncertain times in Taranaki.

New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom called the Government’s announcement in April that no new deep-sea oil and gas exploration permits will be granted a “kick in the guts for the future of the Taranaki economy”. It’s a worrying time, says local couple Rhys and Keryn Williams, but they’ve learned to roll with the punches.

White and black gold – from the booming dairy, and oil and gas industries – was flowing through the region’s veins when New Plymouth took the Top Town title in 2008 as the best place in New Zealand to call home. The Williams, who settled there in 1995 after coming back from their OE, told North & South they loved the active outdoors lifestyle they had with their two kids. Flexible hours at the council, where Rhys was a technical officer, meant he could go surfing on his lunch break, and New Plymouth was almost unrecognisable as the “boring town with no nightlife” he remembered as a teenager. “Things are easy here. We’re in the provinces, but it’s a city that’s moving forward.”

A few years later, Rhys was back working in the oil and gas industry when the downturn hit. Forced offshore, he spent most of 2015 based in Abu Dhabi – where the best surf break was an artifical wave at an outdoor adventure park. When he finally flew home to New Plymouth, within the hour he was paddling out to sea on his board.

Since then, he’s had “pretty regular work”. He and Keryn, who has an accounting consultancy, bought an old villa in 1995 as a do-up for $83,000. In 2013, they sold it for $420,000 and moved to a new townhouse development three blocks from the city centre. Daughter Meg, who’s 22 and still living at home, has followed her mum into accounting, while son Jack, 20, is doing a snowboarding instructor course in Wānaka.

In 2016, Lonely Planet named Taranaki as one of the world’s best regions to visit. According to the latest figures from Statistics NZ, it’s also the biggest contributor to New Zealand’s economy, with the highest GDP per capita – generating $8 billion in the year ended March 2017, despite a decline since its 2014 peak.

A blueprint strategy, “Tapuae Roa: Make Way for Taranaki” – championed by New Plymouth hotelier and former mayor Peter Tennent – outlines plans to attract talented people to the “exceptional lifestyle” on offer and to grow the highest proportion of technology-enabled and digitally-focused enterprises in regional New Zealand. Tennent told North & South he supports a shift to alternative energy sources, but the Government’s stand on oil and gas exploration has got it “horribly wrong”.

Keryn calls it “naive” and says locals are already worried about the impact on their livelihoods. She counts herself among those who care about protecting the environment, but believes regions like Taranaki need support to keep their momentum. “It’s not going to reduce emissions, and it gives investors the jitters.”

Stephanie de Montalk and her husband John Miller in Kelburn, Wellington.

Stephanie de Montalk and her husband John Miller in Kelburn, Wellington.

When the wind blows

A window on Wellington.

From the Chinese opium couch where Stephanie de Montalk often lies, she can look out the window of her Kelburn home over Wellington’s town belt and watch the light change on a million shades of green.

“I can see the wind in the trees and that’s a very powerful thing for me – the sight of it, the sound of it, the feel of it when I step outside,” she says. “The wind is the centre of my life now. It constantly reminds me I’m alive in a way nothing else does.”

What could have been a more perfect symbol of the new millennium than Wellington, crowned North & South’s Top Town in 2000. The capital – which wasn’t even a contender for the top 10 in 1994 due to its limp economic performance and static growth – had finally arrived.

De Montalk, a writer and documentary maker, had just published her first book of poetry when she was interviewed for the story; her husband, John Miller, was a senior law lecturer at Victoria University. Over the years, they’d lived in Hong Kong, Sydney and Edinburgh, but something about Wellington always drew them home. “We like living at the centre of things because we’re city people,” de Montalk said.

Three years later, in 2003, she slipped on a marble bathroom floor in a Warsaw hotel. In that moment, her life began closing in. Two failed surgeries have left her with nerve damage that causes intractable chronic pain, making it impossible for her to sit at all and able to stand for only short periods. A memoir of sorts, How Does It Hurt?, was released here in 2014 and a new edition is due to be published in the UK and the United States in September.

Miller is now in private practice, specialising in ACC cases. After scattering around the world, three of their children are back living in the capital, while the fourth commutes into work from his home in Martinborough.

In 2013, then Prime Minister John Key notoriously called Wellington a “dying” city, after a dismal report on the region’s economy. However, reports of its demise have proved premature. The mood is one of optimism in the coolest little capital, with booming tourism and population growth at an historic high. But de Montalk, who’s 73, thinks New Zealand’s third-largest city still has the same village feeling it did in the 1950s, when she was a schoolgirl at Queen Margaret College in Thorndon and then a nurse at Wellington Hospital.

“I look at Wellington now with a very different eye,” she says. “I’m no longer immersed in the cafe culture or out and about because I can’t sit. So I’m very much more somebody who responds to the sense of the place. There’s a cultured and relaxed feel to Wellington, a certain warmth and busy intimacy I pick up the moment I step out of the car.”

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.


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